1984: Looking Backward at Orwell's Novel of the 1940s

By Bell-Villada, Gene H. | Monthly Review, May 1984 | Go to article overview

1984: Looking Backward at Orwell's Novel of the 1940s


Bell-Villada, Gene H., Monthly Review


He could just as well have set the novel in 1978. Or 1981. Or 1994 or 1999. Of course there was the practical consideration of making protagonist Winston Smith just old enough to remember a nebulous 1950s, but also young enough not to have known such historically-laden dates as 1929 or 1939 or 1945. The nightmarish anti-Utopia of Orwell is a future without a past--history having been expunged by the Party--yet a future still specific and proximate enough in time for Orwell's coevals to have identified with and anticipated within their lifespans. Not for him the remote, millennial visions of Wells, Huxley, or Jack London, set hundreds of years hence. Today, however, Orwell's relatively shabbier and homelier "dystopia" seems less of a guide to the peculiarities of our own confused and fearsome 1984, and more of a grand projection out of an anxious 1948, the year when Orwell, in a furious race against tuberculosis, wrote most of his long-gestating satire. His original intent was to call it, apocalyptically, The Last Man in Europe. A simple reversal of digits is the probable source of its chosen and now ever-present title.

Title and book are among the most influential of our time, with steady sales and persuasive powers comparable to those enjoyed, just five decades ago, by the rosier, sunnier, future fictions of H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy. Even among non-readers 1984 is a ready reference, an authoritative myth--an attack on Russia for some, on "totalitarianism" for others, and more popularly on centralized control of any kind, be it that of computer banks or federal cops. And yet, Orwell's linguistic prescience and horrific intuitions aside, how much can we depend on his potent book as equipment for living in the real 1984? A great deal, though less than is sometimes believed, and often in ways that Orwell never envisioned or admitted.

To begin with, 1984 is less a portrait of totalitarianism than a satire of its "ideal type," to use Max Weber's term. Like all utopian novelists, Orwell starts from the mental concept of a society and pushes certain features to their logical extreme. Real Stalinist practices (not German fascist ones) and Trotsky's fiery prose furnished him with the raw material. Much of Orwell's broad theoretical framework, however, came from James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution, discredited now, but in the 1940s a bestselling work of pop-sociology that foresaw an emerging world order of "three primary super-states" (emphasis in Burnham) governed by collectivist oligarchies engaged in protracted, open-ended geopolitical struggles and holding continued sway over the non-white "backward peoples" of the globe. With the super-states rechristened Eurasia (i.e., Russia and Europe), Eastasia (not specified), and Oceania (U.S.A. and U.K.), Burnham's is indeed the world order reimagined by Orwell. His narrative gifts having flowered during the ugliest days of Stalinism and soared at a time when such ideas were in the air, he thereupon extrapolated Stalin's system and Burnham's schemes--worldwide and into eternity.

Behind 1984 was the ongoing debate between democractic-socialist Orwell and his friendly foes on teh Communist left in England, with their heavy jargon, party line zig-zags, general ineffectiveness, and "stupid cult of Russia," as Orwell put it. Set in London, it is very much an English book, with English proper names (Winston Smith!), twisted English socialism (Ingsoc), and an English target (unstated, but more crucial than the Russian one). And the fact is that Orwell, for all his experience as a policeman in Asia, odd-jobber in France, and freedom-fighter in Civil War Spain, remained to the end a classically insular Englishman. That of course is his strength; it made possible the plain-speaking voice of the great essayist, the sympathetic and fruitful observer of English popular culture, and the dogged anti-theorist who, in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, sought knowledge from real miners and tramps rather than from academic books or party pamphlets. …

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